Last week, Matt Mullenweg made public his idea on creating a WordPress.com Marketplace to add more options to WordPress.com bloggers for a fee, especially meeting the demands of so many for more, more, and more.
Among the proposals under consideration, and I stress that, since this is not a done deal but an idea, is the selling of Premium WordPress Themes to WordPress.com bloggers. In Matt’s post, he comes up with a 50-50 split as an example, which has outraged many, and created a lot of speculation and false accusations.
I’d like to point out something that appears to be overlooked from Matt’s post:
WP.com Marketplace Idea
At WordCamp Argentina yesterday I talked about an upcoming feature for WordPress.com, a theme marketplace…
Right now WordPress.com is a little bit like a clothing store with only XXL men’s pink ponchos available — not a lot of selection. We’d like to offer more products, hence the idea of a theme marketplace.
…There are some obvious things that need to be in place, and probably a few we haven’t thought of yet.
…At the end of the day, it’s just a market. I’m sure styles, pricing strategies, and more will develop over time.
To further support the idea, and all of its ramifications, Matt does a Marketplace Followup in which he says:
It’s still impossible to know for certain, though, and I appreciate that our launch partners are taking a risk that they might create a theme and not sell a single one, and the whole thing might tank. If it goes well, though, I fully expect there to be thousands of themes in the system by this time next year, and the people in early will have a significant advantage, much like app developers did on Facebook.
Does this sound like a done deal? The idea of a WordPress.com Marketplace is in the works, and has been for a long time, offering WordPress.com bloggers all kinds of products and services, including t-shirts, CSS Extras (allowing customization of your own WordPress.com blog), extra storage space, VIP hosting, and soon may include bumper stickers and coffee mugs, and “premium” Themes, all wrapped up in a neat “store”. Hey, I want a coffee mug!
For two years, rumors have also been flying to come up with a way of charging WordPress.com users for the right to put ads on their blogs and make money with their free blogs for a small fee. The bloggers would make money, the advertisers would make money, and so would WordPress.com, but it’s a delicate road to walk, so right now, it’s still rumors. What isn’t a rumor is that soon ads that current appear randomly on some WordPress.com blogs will be able to be turned on or off for a fee so your blog can remain ad free if you want.
As Matt said, it’s just a market, and they are making marketing decisions, but moving slowly and carefully, asking for input and feedback before jumping too drastically into something that will be hard to back out of.
These are ideas put out on the table and Matt and the WordPress.com team is looking for your input, suggestions, feedback, and other ideas. Not many businesses ask their customers and potential customers what they think before preceding with their business decisions. Matt Mullenweg and WordPress has a reputation for talking, listening, before deciding, and then admitting when they screw up.
In April 2007, Matt Mullenweg asked the WordPress Community to vote idea of whether or not to include “sponsored” Themes in the “official” WordPress Theme directories and lists. The response was overwhelming, with the majority of users furious about finding hidden links, ads, and hidden and unwanted code in WordPress Themes without disclosure. After a lot of listening and debate, in July 2007, Mark Ghosh on Weblog Tools Collection declared that he would no longer feature sponsored WordPress Themes, and Matt Mullenweg has made the WordPress policy on sponsored WordPress Themes final. He listened to what users, designers, and those who support WordPress in so many ways had to say, and made a decision to protect users from those who abused free WordPress Themes, at least from within the bounds of what WordPress could control. There are still many WordPress Themes offered all over the web with undisclosed links and code that many describe as malicious and clearly unwanted, so business for these folks continues on. They just aren’t included in the “official” WordPress lists.
Now, those web designers who want to make money off their WordPress Themes without the need for underhanded techniques or finding sponsors have another chance to do so. And those who want to continue using their WordPress Themes as marketing tools to promote their skills by offering their Theme designs for free, can also continue to do so.
The idea is out there, and Matt and his team are listening. Let them know what you think about this, but please, think it through before offering your opinion. There are a lot of sides to the issue worth considering.
Selling WordPress Themes on WordPress.com
The focus in the current debate and discussion seems to be not around the idea and offering helpful comments and recommendations on the Marketplace concept, but on the top-of-his-head mention of a 50-50 split for Theme designers and WordPress.com, which Matt then qualifies with the fact that he’s keeping numbers simple and “you can plug in different numbers and assumptions there and it’s pretty easy to see how this could be big for designers.”
Is the 50-50 split a done deal? Again, this is an idea that has just been made public. With the feedback, the numbers may change, especially as the amount of work that goes into this process on both sides is explored and uncovered. Without facts on the ground, who knows if 50-50 is fair or 30-70?
I also don’t see why the Marketplace has to be only limited to WordPress.com users. In time, I could see it expanding to include any WordPress user access to some fun schwag and Themes. Who knows where this could lead?
I’m not taking sides on this, as I see so much from all perspectives, so here is a little of what I see.
Benefiting WordPress Theme Designers
For Theme Designers, they would benefit by not having to work so hard to promote their own wares. Currently, besides now having a shadow of suspicion on most WordPress Themes because of the abuse by only a few, Theme designers have to submit their Themes to multiple directories, sites, and blogs for publicity. They have to work hard to convince the public of the quality and integrity of their work in order to build their reputation as a web designer. They are competing with thousands of others, not a select few.
With association with WordPress.com, there is a new respect and assumption of integrity that cannot be easily bought nor earned, and then, by only a select few. Theme designers would benefit from less work, time, and effort promoting their Themes, thus their web design services, which, for most, is the end goal, right? I’m sure they would rather be earning money for their services than spending all their time handing out and promoting their WordPress Themes.
The publicity that may come from being one of the “top paid WordPress Themes” might do wonders for your career, too, which is a metric currently not tracked well. What if a Theme accepted into WordPress.com would get a small badge that says “WordPress.com Approved” or something that could be used on the Theme outside of WordPress.com. That might be a neat seal of approval that would speak loudly. Worth a thought.
If the 50-50 split holds, then yes, there would be a loss in income. Offset that by the less time and effort the designer might spend in promoting their Themes, and maybe this is a good thing. Maybe a better split could be arranged, or a sliding scale. This is still up for discussion and we need more facts.
Are there other downsides to this plan for WordPress Theme designers? Since they can sell their Themes after inclusion in WordPress.com’s Marketplace, is there really a downside besides the money issue?
WordPress.com Also Needs to Benefit
WordPress.com would benefit by offering unique and interesting Themes to their users, and get better quality Themes to offer. WordPress.com users would benefit, too, getting access to whatever defines a “premium” Theme over a not premium Theme.
Currently, the process every WordPress Theme goes through before inclusion in the WordPress.com offerings is fairly intense and time consuming as every bit of code is inspected and checked. Not just for sponsored links or criminal activity, but all the code elements to ensure that the Theme will work within the latest version of WordPress and the WordPress.com structure and usage. It is also the responsibility of WordPress.com to keep all these Themes updated and maintained during all of the updates to its code base. That’s a lot of work, just ask Andy Skelton. WordPress.com has to pay people to do this, so they deserve compensation, too.
Before I pass judgment on the suggestions Matt put forth, I’d like to see the stats. I’d want to know how much time and energy goes into maintaining and processing WordPress Themes for WordPress.com. Right now, we’re working on assumptions and familiarity with free, free, everything free, and volunteer effort. WordPress.com is a business, powered by staff, a growing number of staff, as well as volunteers, and they need to be paid. It’s a business, and the Marketplace would also be a business.
WordPress.com users would benefit by having access to some unique and distinctive Themes, but herein lies a catch or two that might have been overlooked.
The Price of Uniqueness Over Neatness
For the Theme designer to make money with this proposal as it stands, the Theme would have access to 1.7 million potential buyers with the goal of selling the use of the Theme to the most people, right? If 500 or 1000 bloggers on WordPress.com are buying use of that Theme, WordPress.com and the designer make money, but the Theme’s use isn’t very original any more, is it?
A unique look to your blog is often worth more than “pretty” or “neat”. I’m sure the majority of WordPress.com bloggers are more into pretty than the value of having the “only look in town”, but there is a market for uniqueness. Those who want a unique look for their blog might be willing to pay more to limit the number of WordPress.com bloggers with access to that look. For them, maybe $500 a year might be worth it to lock down that Theme. This might be worth exploring, too.
Taken even further along the idea chain, a bidding or auction could be developed to bid on the Theme you want for your blog, giving even more credit to the uniqueness issue, as well as creating competition. Imagine if your Theme was hotly bid on, and all the surrounding publicity of the auction? Why stop for just paying, why not sensationalize the process?
Another aspect overlooked in the debate over money and special interest is the challenge made to web designers around the world.
What defines a premium WordPress Theme from a free WordPress Theme?
By what the Theme offers, not just what it looks like.
Personally, I’d be willing to pay to get a Site Map that automatically generates a good table of contents by category and/or tag on my blog. How about the ability to have a Theme which has a magazine style front page with drag-and-drop layouts, and a customizable single post pageview, too? Or one that allows you to add your own conditional tags that say, “if X then show Y” with your blog’s content?
There is so much a WordPress Theme can do beyond the pretty that is rarely explored by web page designers. This is a chance to dig into the possibilities and flexibility of WordPress template tags and code to create powerful Themes that break the walls of the boxes we’ve become so accustomed to.
If someone just wants to change the pretty, they can pay the USD $15 for the CSS Extra which allows changing the stylesheet, but not the Theme’s underlying code.
If they want more, will you be one of those willing to break the mold and set an example for others to follow as you lead?
In the end, while it may be about money to many, it’s also about encouraging development and access. With a little competition and incentive, we can get back to the moon – or at least, get a neat WordPress Theme for our free blogs.
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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network, and author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.